The Phantom Menace
MAD Architects' Ma Yansong has roiled the waters of Chicago's design scene with his proposal for George Lucas's museum. But does it really pose such a threat to the city's lakefront?
January 16, 2015
|Image courtesy Lucas Museum of Narrative Art|
|MAD’s controversial design for the Lucas Museum sits on the shore of Lake Michigan with the city as a backdrop. Studio Gang will design the landscape, while VOA Associates will serve as executive architect.|
I've always been partial to architectural mountains—from the Mayans to Bruno Taut—so I was delighted to see the hilly design that Beijing-based MAD Architects has proposed for the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in Chicago. Others were less so. These included Friends of the Park, a nonprofit group, which, alarmed that the parking-lot site would not remain “open space,” immediately filed a lawsuit, and Blair Kamin, the Chicago Tribune critic who, citing unsourced “widespread public revulsion,” denounced the structure's mountainessness, blobbiness, starchitecturality, abstraction, and resem- blance to (quick, a Star Wars image!) the “bloated” Jabba the Hutt, with his “leering, reptilian eyes.” Yikes, that line between geomorphs and biomorphs can be tricky! In a subsequent article, Kamin suggested what he felt to be a better site, a few blocks away, one somewhat more constraining and linear, perhaps better able to accommodate a replica of a recumbent Carrie Fisher.
Outside the vagaries of taste, is there any merit to this spleen? Kamin observes that Lake Michigan has an “overriding horizontality.” Of course, this is a quality shared with pretty much all bodies of water, not to mention the land mass extending ad infinitum to the lake's west. By one reading, Chicago's singularity is as an interruption in this continuous plane, a great vertical wall stretching for miles along the shore, a thin but massive membrane with flatness on either side, a continental divide. To be sure, Kamin and others are right to defend the linear park that runs between the buildings and the lake as part of Chicago's DNA. While crucial in its continuity, it is variously thin and wide along the lake and, in the case of the Lucas site, it is already filled with buildings. Some are horizontal in proportion—like the gargantuan McCormick Place, which juts criminally into the lake and is hardly an exemplar of the Prairie Style. Others in the complex, not so much, including Soldier Field with its towering Star Wars–style luxury-box addition by Wood + Zapata, though the field of play is admittedly flat.
The Lucas project—only 110 feet tall—occupies a particular space along the lake, one that can enhance continuity rather than thwart it. Not only will the still-undercooked site plan allow green space to flow around the museum, but the building sits on Burnham Harbor, facing—and eventually bridging to—Northerly Island, which awaits its own development as a park. The new museum certainly won't interrupt this flow of green frontage, and the argument that its form will detract from the morphological rhythm of the lakefront is simply specious. I say it will enhance it, offer variety, punctuation, sinuousness, and a fresh and fine architectural form in a city that has always pioneered new design. Indeed, if there's a missed opportunity, it's not on the lakeside but behind, across the barricading highway and railway tracks, where fingers of green might extend into neighborhoods now badly cut off from park and water.
And the building ain't no blob. MAD's design more strongly resembles a Frei Otto tent and such mountainous descendants as the Denver airport. These are tensile structures distinguished by simplicity and structural directness: their genius is their light weight and morphological clarity. Here, I'm with Kamin, bemused by the description of the museum as likely to be made of stone. This will either be pure computer-cut veneer (with a complex armature to hold it up) or else—if used “as it wants to be”—highly compressive and hugely thick. The thing will be heavy, although other possibilities abound, including ceramics a la space shuttle. MAD, no strangers to such mountains, can surely work it out.
Ironically, New York is in the midst of a similar drama of ambivalence over a rich man's proposed gift. Barry Diller has offered to finance his own pretty sweet-looking minimountain on a derelict pier, in Manhattan's Hudson River Park. Although both projects invoke the serious problems of depending on the plutocracy for the life of our cultural institutions, the specific Diller/Lucas comparison is flawed. Diller's gift—near the High Line (to which he and his wife Diane van Furstenberg have been generous)—is not a little self-serving. It's near their offices in an already favored part of town and comes at a time when parks in poor neighborhoods decay. Chicago urgently wants the Lucas collection and the economic and cultural stimulus it promises. The site—already a museum campus—makes sense. It was proposed by a well-composed committee with no particular axes to grind. And the building has the potential to be a tremendous benefit to the city. Let Lucas build it!